Emily May, 5th March 2016.
For many of us, when we think of Andy Warhol, our mind is penetrated with brightly coloured portraits of 1960s celebrities – works indicative of the more commercial side of the American Pop Art movement. However, the works from the Hall Collection displayed at The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, are varied and surprising, showing a wider scope to the oeuvre of an artist we all thought we knew.
“I started repeating the same image because I like the way repetition changed the same image… also I felt… that people can look at and absorb more than one image at the same time.” – Andy Warhol.
As one enters the Exhibition, they feel in familiar territory, not yet shocked by the range of explorations completed by Warhol. It’s the 60s. We are confronted by all the stereotypical Warhol techniques: multiple versions of the same image, mechanical reproduction through silk screening and the elimination of the human elements of art. Many of the works conform to the Pop Art convention of using images from the contemporary media and advertising. For example Avanti (1962) a silkscreen of a luxury sports car, embraces the wealth and consumerism high art was supposed to renounce. The Ashmolean poignantly asks the question “Was he [Warhol] promoting or criticizing the advertising he reproduced?”
“I feel I represent the U.S in my art, but not as a social critic.” – Andy Warhol.
A stand out room in the 1960s section of the exhibition is dedicated to Warhols filmic explorations. It contains his work between 1964- 1966 on Screen Tests, comparable to a “Who’s who” of 1960s celebrity. They are a series of black and white, silent film portraits in which the artist has asked the muses to stare into the camera for a length of time. The result is quite fascinating, as the viewer is able to observe the individual just “be” – to breathe, complete natural behaviors and exhibit confusion at what they have been asked to do, all elements that make up a personal aura/ demeanor that are lost in static, inanimate portraiture.
As we migrate into the realms of the 1970s, the artwork on show enters a new era of abstraction. Although towards the later half of the decade Warhol returns to his fascination with celebrity, paintings from this period of his career range from a study of reducing body parts to simplified forms to Untitled (Oxidation Paintings) (1978) using his own urine to create intricate, mesmerizing patterns the beauty of which contrasts the scatological nature of it’s production.
“Heaven and hell are just a breath away” is the resounding message that permeates through the final gallery of the exhibition. The 80s was the final decade of Warhol’s life, and artistic premiership in New York, and in my opinion was the period in which he produced his most meaningful and creatively profound works. They’re almost unrecognizable as Andy Warhol’s, they are monochrome, socio-politically charged and draw on a range of religious and fatalistic themes. There’s a map of the USSR discussing the contemporary fear of Nuclear War. We are surrounded by slogans compelling us to “be somebody with a body” and questioning “are you different?” It’s a world away from the technicolor images of cheerful consumerism in the innocent, peaceful 1960s, yet it seems to be a suitable swansong for a man who questioned and redefined what it meant to be an artist in the 20th Century.
“Black is my favourite colour. And white is my favourite colour.” – Andy Warhol.
Overall – it’s a journey. In Andy Warhol: Works from the Hall Collection The Ashmolean takes it’s visitors to crevices of Warhol’s brain and that they never knew existed – yet simultaneously delivers the popular art work we all know and love to make the harrowing images of self discovery more easily digestible.
Andy Warhol: Works from the Hall Collection at the Ashmolean, Oxford is running from 4th February – 15th May 2016. For more information visit: http://www.ashmolean.org/exhibitions/andywarhol/